LEUVEN, Belgium – One of the grand challenges of the 21st Century is understanding how the brain works. Electronics engineers and biologists at the IMEC research institute here are collaborating in efforts to advance the work.
IMEC’s historic mission is pioneering semiconductor process technology, a job that has become increasingly complex as the industry races toward transistors the size of a few atoms. As progress in making smaller chips becomes more challenging, IMEC is exploring a diverse set of applications for electronics in fields such as imaging and energy.
The group's work in neurology holds some of the greatest human potential and fascination. One of its recent developments is a bioreactor (above).
A sort of digital Petri dish, the bioreactor places an array of 16,384 electrodes on bottom of a cell culture dish. The electronics help researchers study networks of thousands of neural and stem cells as they grow.
“There’s a lot of interest in growing cells for tissues and ultimately organ transplants,” said Paru Deshpande, program director life sciences. “But there are so many signals going back and forth [in a biological system that] an artificial environment can’t fully reproduce a cellular environment."
The bioreactor helps bridge the gap, giving researchers deeper insights into the signal patterns among dense nerve groups (shown below).